White Male Vote Especially Critical

Sen. Barack Obama has gained significant support from white voters in smaller states outside the South, such as Wyoming, where he appeared on March 7.
Sen. Barack Obama has gained significant support from white voters in smaller states outside the South, such as Wyoming, where he appeared on March 7. (By Alex Brandon -- Associated Press)
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By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 17, 2008

In the fierce campaign between Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama, a battle dominated by questions of race and gender, white men have emerged as perhaps the single critical swing constituency.

The competition for the support of white men, particularly those defined as working class, will shape the showdown between Clinton and Obama in Pennsylvania's Democratic presidential primary on April 22. Obama (Ill.) won majorities among those voters in what appeared to be breakthrough victories in Wisconsin and Virginia last month. But he badly lost working-class white men to Clinton (N.Y.) in Ohio and Texas two weeks ago, keeping the outcome of the Democratic race in doubt indefinitely.

The results in Ohio in particular raised questions about whether Obama can attract support from this crucial demographic. They also brought to the forefront the question of whether racial prejudice would be a barrier to his candidacy in some of the major industrial battlegrounds in the general election if he becomes the Democratic nominee.

An examination of exit polls in Wisconsin and Ohio, states with striking similarities, shows that many more working-class white men in Ohio said race was a factor in their vote on March 4 than was the case in Wisconsin. The analysis makes clear that race was not the deciding factor in the Ohio primary but did contribute to Clinton's margin of victory.

In the past week, racial issues have dominated the campaign dialogue. Former Democratic vice presidential nominee Geraldine Ferraro was forced to quit the Clinton campaign after her comments about Obama and race brought sharp criticism from the senator and his allies.

On Friday, Obama had to distance himself from his spiritual mentor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., former pastor of Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ, over statements widely viewed as being anti-American. Obama has been a member of the church for two decades.

Obama's advisers have sought to play down the idea that racial prejudice was a major factor in Clinton's victory in Ohio. They suggest that Obama's poor performance among working-class white men reflects broader generational divisions that have marked the Democratic race.

David Axelrod, senior adviser to Obama, said he is uncertain how concerned the campaign should be about the influence of race on working-class white voters. "It bears some closer examination," he said. "I think for older voters, it's more of a leap than for younger voters. But I don't think it's an insuperable barrier."

Obama has sought to transcend race in his campaign, and found considerable success in that pursuit in many states. Racial divisions have shown up in Southern states, as they did last Tuesday in Mississippi and earlier in Alabama. In both primaries, Obama overwhelmingly carried the black vote and Clinton overwhelmingly carried the white vote. But in smaller states outside the South -- such as Iowa, Kansas and Utah -- where there are far fewer minorities, Obama has done extremely well with white voters.

One view in Obama's campaign is that his poor showing in Ohio primarily reflected that the state has a high number of older voters. An analysis of exit polls in the two states undercuts that assertion. There were roughly similar percentages of white working-class men over 45 and under 45 in both states. It is accurate that Obama did far better with younger men in both states, but he won younger and older white men in Wisconsin but lost both groups in Ohio.

One difference between the two states is the influence of race on voting patterns. Among white men in Wisconsin, 11 percent said race was an important factor in their vote. In Ohio, 27 percent of white men said race was an important factor. That is not enough to explain the entire difference in the voting patterns of white men in the two states, but more than enough to explain at least part of Obama's problem.

Andrew L. Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, which has endorsed Obama, said that in industrialized states that have experienced economic dislocation and job losses, the competition for jobs heightens racial tensions. "I think race is a factor in the sense that these are states that have had a decreasing number of jobs because of deindustrialization," he said.

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